This is the first of at least four articles I am going to do about our UK trip. As I mentioned before, I’m putting in a fair amount of detail, but I’m mainly doing it for my own reference in the future.
June 30 / July 1
Our Air Canada flight left Toronto around 6:30pm on the 30th and landed at Heathrow around 6:30am (local time) on the 1st. Each of us had our own TV in the back of the seat in front of us, so the boys were kept entertained by that until they started falling asleep while watching. They slept about 3 hours each, and Gail and I might have gotten two each.
Our luggage came off the plane pretty quickly, and then we had to search around for the phone number of the guy managing the apartment we were renting. I had a nasty panic moment when I thought I hadn’t brought the phone number, but then found it and arranged to meet him at the apartment. We managed to manoeuvre to the Tube and figure out how to get to Gloucester Road on the Picadilly Line – luckily Heathrow is itself on that line, so no transfer was needed, though it was quite a long trip. We found the apartment, but we were pretty early, so the previous tenants were still there. The apartment manager offered to keep our luggage in his car and meet us back there in an hour while we went to get some breakfast. After eating and becoming somewhat familiar with the local area (by walking in the wrong direction while trying to find Hyde Park), we went back to the apartment, which was now vacant. We put our luggage inside and got the key, then got back on the Tube to head to Covent Garden. My sister had told us about the Maple Leaf Pub, which had Canadian decor and served Canadian beer and food (poutine, and… what else? Moose burgers? Beaver bacon? Kraft Dinner?) so we figured that going there for lunch on Canada Day was appropriate. Unfortunately, when we found the place, there was a sign on the door saying “Over 18’s only”, so we couldn’t bring the kids in. Disappointed, we found lunch elsewhere but while looking around for somewhere to eat, we decided to take a quick look at the Lyceum Theatre, where The Lion King was playing (the musical stage play, not the movie). Gail and I had seen it in Toronto years before, and we thought the boys might like it so we checked on ticket availability. We got tickets for the next night (third row in the balcony – great seats) and then walked over to Trafalgar Square to see the Canada Day celebrations there. There was an outdoor hockey rink (no ice), a concert stage with some guy playing Barenaked Ladies and Tragically Hip songs, a booth selling Sleeman beer, a Visit Alberta tourism booth, and lots of people waving little Canadian flags. After hanging out there for a while, we continued walking to Piccadilly Circus, which I thought was kind of disappointing. There was the big neon display (similar to Times Square) and lots of souvenir shops, but nothing else of interest. We grabbed the Tube back to the apartment and were all in bed by 8:00.
The apartment itself was a little bigger than the place we had in Paris. It had two bedrooms (one with a king bed and the other with a double), 1½ bathrooms, a kitchen, and a living room with a TV.
I was the first one up the next morning, around 9:00. Nothing like a little 13-hour sleep to get over the jetlag. Gail wanted to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, which starts at 11:30, but it took us a while to get going, so we decided to do that another day (we never actually did see it). We took the Tube to the Tower of London and spent the day there. The boys really enjoyed the stories of murder, torture, and executions, and Gail and I got caught up in all the history as we always do on these vacations. Two weeks from now we’ll have forgotten most of it. The history in Europe is just mind-boggling to us North Americans. Before the 1600’s, there basically is no recorded history in North America. When you go back that far, you find things in history books like ” occurred in the general area of sometime between 1630 and 1645, we think. Or maybe it happened three hundred miles away in 1684.”. Then you go to Europe and find things like “On Wednesday, May 12, 1134 at 8:30 in the morning, happened in this particular building (which is often still there) to these particular people and here are lots of details on how it happened”.
London was in the middle of its worst heatwave in years – temperatures in the low 30’s and quite humid. This is not unlike a hot summer day at home, but the difference is that Londoners aren’t prepared for this kind of heat. None of the stores were air-conditioned, nor was our apartment. Even the theatre where we saw The Lion King wasn’t – I can’t imagine how hot it must have been for the actors in the big costumes under the spotlights. Luckily this was the last day of the heatwave – it rained hard overnight, and the rest of our time in London was quite comfortable.
Near our apartment was a stop for The Original Tour, which is a double-decker bus tour of London, where you can get on and off the bus as often as you want. We toured around the city, including going by Buckingham Palace, which we had since discovered is not open to the public until August. That was as close as we got to the Palace. We got off the bus near the Houses of Parliament, where Ryan delighted in informing us that Big Ben is not the famous clock tower, but the biggest bell inside the tower. We then crossed the Thames to the London Eye (called by some the “London Eyesore”). There are 32 pods and a maximum of 25 people can “fly” (you don’t “ride” the London Eye, you fly) in each one, though there were a few pods that were not used. I’m not afraid of heights but Gail’s not a big fan, and I wasn’t sure how the boys would deal with it either, but everyone was fine. The
ride flight was very smooth, and the views are amazing. The boys still talk about the London Eye as a highlight of the whole trip.
Our bus tour ticket also included a boat cruise down the Thames to Greenwich, so we headed down there next. We walked around the Observatory in Greenwich, and the boys enjoyed standing next to each other in different hemispheres. We then took the boat back to the Tower Pier and had dinner at a spaghetti house near Covent Garden before taking the Tube back to the apartment.
Our bus tour ticket expired around 11:00 am, so we did more of the city tour in the morning before disembarking back at the London Eye. We walked across to Westminster Abbey and took some pictures there before taking the Tube over to St. Paul’s Cathedral. I remember St. Paul’s being a highlight of our last trip to London in 2000, so I was looking forward to seeing it again, and I was not disappointed. We climbed the 250+ stairs to the Whispering Gallery, where Gail and Nicky went to one side while Ryan and I sat opposite them and attempted to “make it work”. We leaned against the wall and whispered things and then looked across the gallery for the thumbs-up or thumbs-down. After a number of thumbs-down signals, a tour guide sat next to Gail and leaned against the wall. A second later I head a whisper: “You have to whisper loudly”. We tried that and the boys were excited that we did get it to work. I assume it has to do with the shape of the dome, so that sound waves get reflected to the opposite side of the gallery, but that doesn’t explain why whispering works but talking does not. The Stone Gallery was another hundred steps up, and the Golden Gallery another 150 beyond that, so Gail decided not to continue climbing, but the boys and I did. I was most of the way to the Stone Gallery when I realized that I hadn’t grabbed the camera from Gail. The boys had their little cameras and I had the video camera, so I figured that would be good enough. The views from the Golden Gallery are amazing, but it’s very cramped up there. Thankfully, many people seem more willing to move out of the way for young kids than they are for adults.
After St. Paul’s, we took the Tube to High Street Kensington and had dinner at a fun place called “Giraffe“, described as a “herd” of restaurants rather than a chain. We had what was probably the best meal we had in London, and then walked over to Hyde Park to visit the Diana, Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playground, but it was closing just as we arrived. The Memorial Fountain was also closed, and we tried to find the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens but couldn’t. We walked back to the apartment and the boys watched a little of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire while Gail and I packed for our trip to Edinburgh the next day.
The Tube between Gloucester Road and Heathrow was closed for maintenance, so we took it up to Paddington Station where we took the Heathrow Express train. Because of the Tube maintenance, our Tube tickets (£11.50 for all four of us) got us on the train (normally £16.50 per adult and £8.20 per kid), and it was much more comfortable than the Tube, so that worked out OK. No problems at the airport, and the British Midlands flight to Edinburgh was less than an hour long.
Thus ended phase one of our trip. The second entry containing phase two is here.